Waxahatchee, the enduring off-kilter Americana endeavour of somewhere-born; Birmingham, Alabama-raised; and now West Philadelphia-based introvert Katie Crutchfield, has seen her stock raise staggeringly over these past few weeks alone and this evening flaunting the newly released Cerulean Salt, there are plenty crumpled about the far extreme of Rough Trade East in her honour.
As has so often been said, the instore is an immanently awkward scenario for all involved: the whites of eyes recede from sight to allow for bulging pupils to scrutinise more thoroughly than any of us would want for them to; lovingly premeditated interaction frequently goes unrequited; and the setlists always tend to be that bit more curt so as to tantalise an already tense audience with the promise of a proper show in some less well-lit cesspit. And for all of the above motives, this particular stage may well be acutely considered that on which the true merits of any which artiste are best adjudged. There is no glitzy light show; an only negligible audience participation; next to no sense of spectacle whatsoever. And in keeping with Crutchfield’s indwelling humility, her personality tonight shines.
In contrast to the sticky intimacies intrinsic to her Waxahatchee début, American Weekend, her latest is a considerably more hi-fi affair although one of its greatest strengths resides in its seemingly effortless maintaining of all those same affections, as well as the sonic warmth of its predecessor, whilst simultaneously embracing a better balanced aesthetic. At times, and whirlwind burst Coast to Coast instantly springs to mind, Katie even claws at a bona fide anthemia of that very kind Rivers Cuomo used to emit with the same unerring regularity the tide washes in and indeed out. And live, hers is a purposefully immersive experience.
Her disposition may be ceaselessly aloof – she spends the majority of her half hour transfixed by the lighting rig with an oopsie expression smeared across her features – but if she looks as though she may well have spent the remainder of the day poking voodoo dolls with prickly things and releasing them from third-floor windows, then the lyrical bombshells she drops on her absent subjects are intensely focussed. Lively, redolent of Mazzy Star’s Fade Into You beamed in from a Seattleite, tells of a onetime beloved who’d “die before you look me in the eye” and although we’re of course only hearing the one side of the story, not to empathise with her plight at that particular point in time is to concede inhumanity. “I had a dream last night/ We had hit separate bottoms/ You yell right in my face/ And I poison myself numb” she continues, her words so terse and cogent that even post-Glastonbury they twang those most resonant of heartstrings. Indeed, Schadenfreudian though it might sound, her pain goes some way to remedying the ineluctable comedown – one which, I ought add, is purely entertainment- and not amphetamine-induced.
Though the festival setting is one to which Cerulean Salt would doubtless lend itself well, such is Crutchfield’s outlook on fleeting life and the ultimate futility thereof. It’s one she tells of breathsnatchingly on Brother Bryan as over hulky bass, she contends “we’ll smoke til our pockets are empty” on a number to swiftly dispel the foggy notion of all grunge being grossly bereft of variation with a versatility that’s staggering as it is simplistic. It’s the sort of song to while away a summer to as your pocket money, and with it the season itself goes up in an ephemeral plume of disintegrating memory.
The tumbledown, if still barnstorming Magic City Wholesale, meanwhile, mentally transports to some disused drive-thru cinema somewhere or other utterly unremarkable in the States, its pastoral homeliness a raw pleasure. It’s one of few moments snatched from American Weekend, and yet its murmured words of motion picture shows slip seamlessly into the remainder of the set, so appositely shambolic is the sound purring from the PA this time around.
Its muffled hum almost provides Katie if not with a crutch, then a cocoon in which she may enwrap her plainly vulnerable pieces in order that they may be conserved from criticism. And it seems an almost concerted technique of hers, as she follows up harrowing “quiet one” Blue Pt. II – performed solo, it’s right up there among her most striking – with a rollicking Noccalula redux as though it were a self-prescribed nostrum to her most introspective revelation past. Thus if she momentarily lets her guard down, then she goes on to expeditiously, and so too emphatically haul it right back up again. “You’ll let me down easy, or you’ll beg for my empathy” she may sneer midway through the latter, although encased in almost impenetrable distortion, it lacks that same crystallinity of reflection.
We are, however, under no pretences as to the topical homogeneity of it all and as she concludes: “I’m going to New York and I’ll be much better there, or that’s what I’m hoping for/ And we will never speak again” her acerbic words only gather added acidity from the raucousness of all that lies beneath. But as has so often been the case right across the infinite gamut of musical histories, hers is an instance of some particularly undesirable predicaments – ungainly life decisions and ugly tales of irreparable relationship breakdowns – birthing such inspiring, and so too thoroughly addictive music. Whether it be Joni Mitchell or Justin Vernon, there’s plenty to be said for artists experiencing abiding bleakness but if anything the tide appears to be changing for Crutchfield in terms of her fame, if not her fortune.
And paradoxical juxtaposition then again returns for one final time, the underwater shush of Peace and Quiet – a kind of irate Where Is My Mind? during which she contemplates an ambiguous someone’s blaming of her “hardworking father for harm you cannot atone” – set against the reckless thrash of a beefy American Weekend after which she herself departs and “didn’t say goodbye.” Irrespective, you can’t help but sense that by the time she greets us again this coming October, not even the Scala will be anywhere near big enough to harbour such glorious angst as this.